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Chapter no 8

This Woven Kingdom (This Woven Kingdom, 1)

THIS DAY HAD BEEN MORE difficult than most.

Alizeh had boiled water until the steam seared her skin. She’d plunged her hands into soapy, scalding-hot liquid so many times that the grooves in her knuckles had split. Her fingers were blistered, warm to the touch. The sharp edges of her floor brush had dug into her palms, rubbing the skin raw until it bled. She’d bunched her apron in her fists as often as she dared, but every desperate search for her handkerchief turned up only disappointment.

Alizeh had little time to dwell on the many thoughts haunting her mind that day, though neither did she desire to think upon such disheartening matters. Between the devil’s visit, the terrifying appearance of the hooded stranger, the cruelty of Miss Huda, and the boy she’d left broken in the snow, Alizeh did not lack for fuel to feed her fears.

She considered, as she scrubbed clean yet another latrine, that it was probably for the best that she ignore the lot. Better not to think on any of it, better to simply push every day through the pain and the fear until she, too, was finally consumed by eternal darkness. It was a bleak thought for a young woman of eighteen, but she thought it nonetheless: that perhaps only in death might she find the freedom she so desperately sought, for she had long ago given up hope of finding solace in this world.

Indeed most hours of the day Alizeh could hardly believe who she’d become, how far she’d strayed from the plans once held for her future. Long ago there’d been a blueprint for her life, a quiet infrastructure designed to support who she might one day be. She’d been left little choice but to abandon that imagined future, not unlike a child shedding an imagined friend. All that remained of her old existence was the familiar whisper of the devil, his voice growing under her skin at intervals, snuffing her life of light.

Would that he, too, might vanish.

The clock had just struck two when, for the twelfth time that day, Alizeh placed her empty buckets on the kitchen floor.

She looked around for any sign of Cook or Mrs. Amina before stealing to the back of the room, and only when she was certain of her solitude did she do what she’d already done eleven times before, and wrench open the heavy wooden door.

Alizeh was struck straightaway by the intoxicating smell of rosewater.

The Wintrose Festival was one of the few things familiar to her in this foreign, royal city, for the Wintrose season was celebrated all throughout

the empire of Ardunia. Alizeh had fond memories of harvesting the delicate pink blooms with her parents, straw baskets colliding as they walked, heads dense with perfume.

She smiled.

Nostalgia nudged her feet across the threshold, sense memory encouraging her legs, articulating her limbs. A zephyr moved through the alley, tumbling rose petals toward her, and she drew the heady, floral fragrance deep into her lungs, experiencing a rare moment of unqualified joy as the breeze ruffled her hair, the hems of her skirts. The sun was but a nebulous glow through an exhalation of clouds, painting the moment in diffuse, golden light that made Alizeh feel as if she’d stepped into a dream. She could hardly help her need to draw nearer to such beauty.

One at a time, she began picking the wind-scattered roses out of the snow, gently tucking the wilting blossoms into the pockets of her apron. These Gol Mohammadi roses were so heavily scented, their perfume would last for months. Her mother had always used theirs to make a rose-petal jam, saving a few corollas to press between the pages of a book, which Alizeh liked t—

Without warning, her heart began to race.

It was that familiar pinch in her chest, her pulse pounding in her bleeding palms. Her hands shook without warning, petals falling loose from her fists. Alizeh was struck with a frightening need to run from this place, to strip the apron from her body and tear across the city, lungs blazing. She wanted desperately to return home, to fall at her parents’ feet and grow roots there, at the base of their bodies. She felt all this in the span of a second, the feeling flooding her with a riotous force and leaving her, in its wake, strangely numb. It was a humbling experience, for Alizeh was again reminded that she had no home, no parents to whom she might return.

It had been years since their deaths, and still it seemed to Alizeh an outrageous injustice that she could not see their faces.

She swallowed.

Once, Alizeh’s life had meant to be a source of strength for the people she loved; instead, she often felt her birth had exposed her parents to bloodshed, to the brutal murders that would take them both—first her father, then her mother—in the same year.

Jinn had been viciously slaughtered for ages, it was true; their numbers had been decimated, their footprint reduced near to nothing—and with it,

much of their legacy. The deaths of her parents, too, had seemed to the unsuspecting eye much like the deaths of countless other Jinn: random acts of hatred, or even unfortunate accidents.

And yet—

Alizeh was plagued always by an unsettling suspicion that her parents’ deaths had not been random. Despite their diligent efforts to keep Alizeh’s existence concealed, she worried; for it was not only her parents, but all those whose lives had once touched hers who’d vanished in a series of similar tragedies. Alizeh could not help but wonder whether the true target of all this violence had been someone else entirely—

Her.

With no proof to corroborate such a theory, Alizeh’s mind was unable to rest, devoured every day a bit more by the voracious appetite of her fears.

Heart still thudding in her chest, she retreated inside.

Alizeh had searched the back alley beyond the kitchen each of the twelve times she’d come downstairs, but the Fesht boy had never turned up, and she couldn’t understand why. She’d scavenged from the remains of breakfast a few chunks of pumpkin bread, which she’d carefully wrapped in wax paper, and hid the rations under a loose floorboard in the pantry. The boy had seemed so hungry this morning that Alizeh could not imagine an explanation for his absence, not unless—

She added firewood to the stove, and hesitated. It was possible she’d hurt the boy too badly during their scuffle.

Sometimes Alizeh did not know her own strength.

She checked the kettles she’d set to boil, then glanced at the kitchen clock. There were still many hours left in the day, and she worried her hands wouldn’t survive the onslaught. Sacrifices would have to be made.

Alizeh sighed.

Quickly, she tore two strips of fabric from the hem of her apron. Alizeh, who made all her own clothes, quietly mourned the ruin of the piece, and then bandaged her wounds as best she could with blistered fingers. She would need to find time to visit the apothecary tomorrow. She had some coin now; she could afford to purchase salve, and maybe even a poultice.

Her hands, she hoped, would recover.

Having wrapped her wounds, the sharp edge of her torment began slowly to abate, the modicum of relief unbolting the vise from around her chest. In the aftermath she took a deep, bracing breath, experiencing a

prickle of embarrassment at her own thoughts, at the dark turns they took with so little encouragement. Alizeh did not want to lose faith in this world; it was only that every pain she owned seemed to extract hope from her as payment.

Still, she considered, as she refilled her buckets with freshly boiled water, her parents would’ve wanted more for her. They would’ve wanted her to keep fighting.

One day, her father had said, this world will bow to you. Just then came a sharp knock at the back door.

Alizeh straightened so quickly she nearly dropped the kettle. She tossed another glance around the unusually empty kitchen—there was so much work to be done today that the servants were granted no breaks—and snatched the hidden parcel from the pantry.

Carefully, she opened the door.

Alizeh blinked, then stepped back. It was Mrs. Sana staring at her, the bespectacled housekeeper from the Lojjan ambassador’s estate.

Stunned as she was, Alizeh nearly forgot to curtsy.

Housekeepers, who ruled their own little kingdoms, were not considered servants and did not wear snodas; as a result, they were due a level of respect that Alizeh was still learning. She bobbed a curtsy, then straightened.

“Good afternoon, ma’am. How may I help you?”

Mrs. Sana said nothing, only held out a small purse, which Alizeh accepted in her injured hand. She felt the weight of the coin at once.

Oh,” she breathed.

“Miss Huda was very pleased with the dress and would like to engage your services again.”

Alizeh went suddenly solid.

She dared not speak, dared not move for fear of ruining the moment.

She tried to remember if she’d fallen asleep, if perhaps she was dreaming.

Mrs. Sana rapped her knuckles on the doorframe. “You’ve gone deaf, girl?”

Alizeh took a sharp breath. “No, ma’am,” she said quickly. “That is— yes, ma’am. I would— It would be my honor.”

Mrs. Sana sniffed at her, in a way that was becoming familiar. “Yes. I daresay it would be. And you’ll remember it the next time you speak ill of

my mistress. She meant to send her maid, but I insisted on delivering the message myself. You understand my meaning.”

Alizeh lowered her eyes. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Miss Huda will need at least four gowns for the upcoming festivities, and one showpiece for the ball.”

Alizeh’s head snapped up. She did not know to which upcoming festivities Mrs. Sana was referring, and she did not care. “Miss Huda wants five gowns?”

“Will that be a problem?”

Alizeh heard a roar in her ears, experienced a terrifying disorientation. She worried she might cry, and she did not think she’d forgive herself if she did. “No, ma’am,” she managed to say. “No problem at all.”

“Good. You may come to the house tomorrow at nine in the evening.” A heavy pause. “After you finish your shift here.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Thank you. Thank you for und—”

“Nine o’clock sharp, you understand?” And Mrs. Sana was gone, the door slamming shut behind her.

Alizeh could hold it in no longer. She slid to the floor and sobbed.

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